Member Spotlight on Serges Demefack with AFSC-IRP

“It matters less where you are born and more what we carry with us, how we see our role as Black people to shape our own future and our own path. To be self-determined.”

Serges Demefack, End Detention and Deportation Project Coordinator, American Friends Service Committee - Immigrants Rights Project 

September is National African Immigrant Heritage Month. This month we highlight our member Serges Demefack, the End Detentions and Deportations Project Coordinator with American Friends Service Committee - Immigrants Rights Project in Newark. We are excited to spotlight Serges, who is fighting for immigrants’ rights in New Jersey and advocating for African immigrant communities. Serges is an immigrant who has been living in the U.S. for about 20 years. He was born in Cameroon, Africa. Before joining AFSC, he was already active in immigrant communities, organizing African immigrants and for African rights, especially those in the Newark area. 

Serges on organizing for African rights…

"My work in immigration justice started before I even arrived in the U.S. In Africa, I supported policy efforts through the African Commission for Human Rights in order to improve African laws in the African Union. There needs to be better protections for those migrating out of Africa and those migrating within Africa. In 2010, I was consulting on immigration issues dealing with the flow of Africans to Europe. I organized a meeting in Morocco in 2011, with the purpose of figuring out how we can support African migrants heading to Europe. At the time, European immigration policies were completely abusive. Migrants would be picked up at the airport, flown out to another country (not even your home country!), before ever seeing a judge or a court to defend yourself. Europe had agreements with other countries to ship people out. Let’s say you were a Cameroonian migrant, trying to make a new life in Europe. Once you arrived in Europe, Europe would send you to Senegal, even if you had no ties to that country at all. This happens very often."

Serges on his optimism for the future of Africa…

"I am very hopeful for Africa. Africa is still recovering from many hardships and continues to endure hardships, because of colonialism and neocolonialism. Oppression has taken many different forms in Africa, but Africa has been resilient in face of it all! I am hopeful because young African countries and young Africans, mostly women, are very hopeful for their future and their land. They have seen the domination of their land and people by corrupt Western powers, but still they are hopeful for a better future! Look at Rwanda, after the mass genocide that killed off many of the adults in that country, their youth came up and have started to rebuild their country. You cannot think of Africa without accounting for the young people building it today."

Serges on organizing African communities in the United States…

"When I arrived in the U.S., my work expanded: from organizing African communities in Newark, to translating, volunteering, and helping to build organizations that 20 years ago did not exist. For many years, I’ve worked to organize African immigrants in the Newark area. This has proven to be challenging because African communities are very separated, but we are trying!"

Serges on what motivates him to continue to advocate for immigrant rights…

"What motivates me to keep fighting is the ability to lift a burden off another person. Ultimately, that small change that we can bring to someone’s life, is enough to satisfy your work. As organizers, we know that change does not happen overnight. Change happens one person at a time. What motivates me in this movement is seeing someone gain some sort of freedom - whether it is being released from prison, jail, or a detention center. What motivates me in this movement is seeing a detention contract come to an end - like Essex County is doing right now. What motivates me in this movement is seeing spaces occupied by ICE slowly shrink. But what really keeps me going is the support we provide families who have been impacted by detention. Just the simple fact of helping another human being is enough for me, along with fighting for their freedom, which is absolutely paramount."

Serges leads a FreeEDC Protest in 2020

AFSC works on many immigrant rights campaigns from ending immigration detention, to protecting TPS and DACA.

"One of our most recent successes was the passing of the anti-detention bill (A5207/S3361), which NJAIJ was very much involved in. The campaign successfully helped end future ICE detention contracts. Although this bill does not end detention right now, it's a step in that direction. But our fight isn’t over until ICE is out of NJ. We are making sure to tell counties that this ICE business will not be there forever. AFSC is also part of a national campaign known as FreeThemAll. We always work in partnership with other organizations. We want to have an impact, and that is only possible when we work together and have roots in communities. Alongside these statewide and national campaigns, AFSC also fights for individual campaigns to free individuals from detention. There was a point when we were advocating for 5-8 individual campaigns at a time, on top of our larger campaigns. Individual campaigns are important in the overall fight against ICE detention centers. When you are advocating for the release of an individual, it's also a campaign against the entire jail, given that the jail’s conditions are exposed which can help local activists increase the pressure to close the detention facility."

On National African Immigrant Heritage Month, Serges says it's a good moment to reflect on the diversity of African immigrant heritage around the world and the struggles and celebrate the accomplishments. He feels hopeful. “I like to say that there’s a little bit of Africa in many of us, if not all of us, because that’s where the story of humanity started in Africa. But if you want to just look at recent history, right now there are African migrants in the US, the Caribbean, Latin America. For example the African community in Brazil is a hundred million people. That’s not a small community and they speak loud and clearly about their African heritage.” 

Serges on Black self-determination and the beauty of the African Diaspora…

“If you just look at the news media, you are going to see a very doomed depiction of Africa but I’m hopeful because of the youth. They know things that their ancestors did not know. They know that you can live in America and say you are African. You can be in Asia and say you are African. You can be in Brazil and say you are African. This is spreading through the whole spectrum of Blackness in the African global community and diaspora. More and more people are embracing and celebrating their roots and that’s a beautiful thing.  We have a very rich culture, a culture very important culture to humanity. It matters less where you are born and more what we carry with us, how we see our role as Black people to shape our own future and our own path. To be self-determined. This movement started a long time ago with people like Kwame Ture and W.E.B. DuBois, who took Blackness and looked at it on a global level. These people are my heroes.”

Serges spoke of the increase in migration globally and African communities beginning to organize outside the colonial frame, cutting across the divides and working together. “Increasingly, African communities are coming together, and many U.S cities are helping Africans work on things together. For example, Newark created the African Commission, a group of African community leaders coming together to look at solutions for issues affecting Africa and African people. Newark is a big city, the largest in the State of New Jersey, and when you expand to the metropolitan area, you see it’s a magnet for a lot of Africans in recent years. When we work on immigration issues, we come together as Africans, regardless of country of origin.” 

 

On the challenges of organizing within African immigrant communities, Serges says it's important to understand the conditions of their countries of origin…

“Because many African countries have only recently won their independence from colonial powers 50 or 60 years ago, there are many weak governments that can’t offer much protection, as well as authoritarian governments and dictators that were handpicked by former colonial powers. In organizing African immigrant communities, that’s helpful in understanding why someone may not share their story because they are used to being crushed by their government. These are things that affect the strongest activists out there.”

 

Serges on the early days of the NJ Alliance for Immigrant Justice…

"In its early days, the Alliance’s headquarters was in AFSC’s office, occupying only 2 cubicles. I saw the Alliance grow and witnessed its immense efforts. AFSC, along with other organizations, helped incubate the Alliance. I have always been a big supporter of the Alliance. I supported the Alliance every way I could, whether it was attending an event, or translating know-your-rights materials to Creole and French (which the Alliance still uses today!). The Alliance has been able to build a name for itself in New Jersey, and push some very important policy agendas, like driver’s licenses for all and prohibiting future ICE detention contracts. I am proud of the Alliance, and proud to be a part of the Alliance."

 

Serges on the book that impacted him the most…

"Sidney Poitier, one of the first Black actors to break the color barrier in Hollywood, wrote a book about his life. His autobiography spoke about his early years living in the Caribbean, then migrating to the U.S., only to be racially discriminated against. Despite it all, he would become one of America's most famous actors. He was supposed to be a sharecropper in his country. Now, he is one of the most celebrated actors in the U.S. Sidney Poitier’s book was moving and impactful to me."